From HTSN on Medium
For years, tenants have swallowed the landlord line that rent increases are simply a routine levy to provide necessary upkeep to buildings. Too often the profit-driven mechanisms of the real estate industry are hidden behind the curtain of landlord spin and nice-guy superintendents. Since the growth of Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) and other more aggressive forms of investment into multi-residential properties, working-class tenants have been feeling severe pain and insecurity over their housing, forcing them to organize out of the sheer necessity of collective self-defence. Peeling back the surface layers of the landlord industry, they see where the rent increases that they’re forced to swallow actually go: into mansions — big mansions — and luxury cars, $10,000 suits, yachts, and every other gross display of opulence imaginable.
Such was the case last weekend when striking tenants from the Stoney Creek Towers in Hamilton trekked to Ottawa with their supporters to confront the executives from InterRent, a REIT with an investment strategy based around displacing working-class tenants from their neighbourhoods.
InterRent cynically refers to this predatory practice as “repositioning” — an industry jargon term for displacing working-class people from their apartments so they can jack rents up on empty units by as much as 80–90% and attract a supposedly higher-income segment of the renting population. Read more about InterRent’s mass displacement strategy in a previous HTSN blog post here.
Tenants from Stoney Creek Towers have been on rent strike since May 1, 2018. Currently about 100 tenants are withholding their rent to pressure landlord InterRent REIT and property manager CLV Group to drop an Above Guideline Increase(AGI). AGIs are widely understood to be a loophole in Ontario rent control laws, allowing landlords to increase rent beyond the annual rent increase guideline set by the Province. Read more about AGIs in a previous HTSN blog post here.
Rather than acknowledging the rent strike and hearing tenants’ grievances collectively, InterRent has issued legal notices and dragged them before the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB). They have insinuated that striking tenants are simply negligent in paying their rent and that these matters should be dealt with individually at the LTB. The LTB typically requires each rent striker to pay InterRent’s court filing fee of $190. It is the LTB’s practice to apply these fees as a punitive measure against tenants. By pursuing this legal strategy, InterRent is attempting to break the strike by draining the rent strike defense fund.
Striking tenants and their supporters denounce this practice, knowing that the LTB exists to support a status quo that benefits landlords and that collective organizing is the only way we can win. Tenants have argued that their cases should be heard together since they are engaged in a collective struggle, and further that this matter should be negotiated outside the LTB. We refuse to be separated, because our struggles are connected.
InterRent’s attempts at undermining the strike will fail. The tenants are organized and strong. They are linked in with similar struggles around the province. And they enjoy broad public support in Hamilton and beyond.
After months of being ignored, rent strikers bring their demands to their landlord’s doorstep
For four months, CLV/InterRent executives have failed to acknowledge the rent strike, listen to the tenants’ demands, or meet with the tenants to negotiate in good faith. Fed up, tenants decided to travel to Ottawa to bring their demands to the doorstep of their landlord and request a meeting to begin negotiations.
On August 10, 2018, about 30 East Hamilton rent strikers and their supporters boarded a bus and made the long drive to Ottawa from Hamilton. Those on board included families with young children, seniors, and people with mobility issues using walkers and canes. Everyone on the bus came together for one purpose: to confront Mike McGahan, CEO of CLV Group/InterRent REIT, for his attack on the working class and to give him a letter highlighting the rent strikers’ demands: 1) Cancel the Above Guideline Increase in rent, 2) Make long overdue repairs to the tenants’ units, 3) Cease the retaliatory use of L9 & N4/L1 applications against striking tenants, and withdraw the outstanding applications, and 4) Respect the tenants, listen to their demands, and come to the negotiating table.
Rent Strikers Visit InterRent REIT / CLV Group’s Ottawa Head Office
We made it to Ottawa around 2:30pm and parked a couple blocks from CLV/ InterRent’s head office. We chanted “They say rent hike? We say rent strike!” as we marched toward the office but by the time we made it to their door, it had already been locked. Some CLV/InterRent representatives stood barricaded behind the door while tenants banged on the windows and insisted they receive our letter and hear our demands.
We watched as representatives refused even mail carriers’ entrance to the office and spotted Mike McGahan looking down at us from his office window, unemotional and unaffected by the people rallying outside. We agreed that Mike McGahan was spineless and too afraid to show his face and continued to shout and chant.
Before long, the police showed up on bikes and in cars. They parked across the street and watched as the CLV/InterRent staffers turned off their office lights and shut the blinds, trying, once again, to ignore the tenants outside and pretend not to be there. Eventually, a security guard from Ottawa-based company, Praetorian Guard, was sent out to hand water bottles to the police.
Knowing that they would have to leave their offices eventually and angry that they were refusing to acknowledge them, tenants and their supporters set up a picket at the exit of the parking lot. We used the Stoney Creek Towers banner to stop vehicles from moving forward and tried to hand flyers to CLV staff. The flyers explained our presence at their office and our demands. Most of them cowered in their vehicles and refused to even look at us.
We began demanding that these staff reps look into the eyes of the people they were displacing by being complicit in Mike McGahan’s business model of repositioning. A police escort eventually pressured us into letting each vehicle pass… but not before they were held up and thoroughly shamed.
After hours of waiting in the afternoon sun, CLV/InterRent finally conceded and agreed to accept our letter but with some conditions. Tenants had demanded to speak with CEO and top shareholder of CLV Group and InterRent REIT, Mike McGahan. McGahan was clearly visible inside the office. He refused, too scared to come face to face with his own tenants. Instead, he dispatched Roseanne MacDonald-Holtman, CLV’s Public Relations Manager. Roseanne said she would meet with only two tenants, not the whole group, and that these two tenants would need to be escorted by the police.
Tenants Jolly and Sarah agreed to deliver the letter, despite the bizarre preconditions. Thinking they would be invited into the office to have a brief conversation with Roseanne, they were instead brought to a back alley where Roseanne, flanked by three police officers, took the envelope in her hand and awkwardly tried to leave as quick as possible. Jolly told Roseanne she was from the Stoney Creek Towers Tenants Committee and that these were her and her neighbours’ demands. Jolly then shook hands with Roseanne and commented on how cold they were. Roseanne mockingly responded: “I’ve got a good heart though!” to which Sarah interjected, “No, you’re dead inside.”
After putting the InterRent/CLV office on blast for hours, we boarded the bus and headed out to meet with organizers and tenants from Herongate, a working-class community facing demolition for condo development in Ottawa. In May 2018, “real estate behemoth” Timbercreek Asset Management notified 105 households that they needed to move by September 30th because the company was set to demolish 150 units in the area, serving eviction notices to 400 residents. Much like the Stoney Creek Towers neighbourhood, Herongate is home to immigrants and people on fixed incomes and many of them have expressed that they have nowhere else to go if they can’t stay in their community. Herongate tenants have organized to expose their landlord’s illegal attempts to move people out of their homes for the development of condos and have been working to defend their community ever since.
A Trip to Mike “Get-off-my-lawn” McGahan’s Mansion
Since Mike McGahan refused to meet with the tenants at his office, tenants decided to pay a visit to his home, a $2.5 million mansion located in Manotick, a rich suburb of Ottawa. Tenants wanted to knock on his door, deliver a letter on behalf of the Stoney Creek Towers Tenant Committee, and request a meeting. When tenants pulled up to the rendezvous point, police were already waiting in both marked and unmarked cruisers. Apparently McGahan was so afraid of facing the consequences of his anti-social business practices that he needed the coercive force of the state to shield him from his tenants.
Unfazed, tenants marched in the mid-day sun through an opulent neighbourhood to the edge of McGahan’s property, which was fenced off, ostensibly for renovations. Again, a police cruiser was waiting to protect the property and privilege of the capitalist upper class from any hint of threat from the presence of working-class people. In fact, there was no direct threat to McGahan’s mansion. Tenants went there to deliver a demand letter and voice their grievances face-to-face. In large part, it was elderly people and children that McGahan called the police on.
The cowardice and arrogance of this act was not lost on tenants. As working-class people, many of them racialized immigrants, they understand that calling the cops would never provide them individualized treatment and care that was afforded to McGahan and his riches; in fact, calling the police often makes matters worse. Landlords can enter a tenant’s unit at any time with 24 hours notice, and landlords like McGahan frequently send their property management staff to enter units without any notice at all — one of the tools of harassment used by landlords in the displacement process.
Tenants yelled taunts, made speeches, and read their letter out loud in front of McGahan’s mansion with several local media outlets there to document it. It’s unclear if McGahan stayed inside and arrogantly ignored the tenants, or if he was down the street in his other mansion, which we later found out was guarded by even more police cruisers. Either way, the class exploitation inherent to InterRent’s investment was laid bare — to the tenants assembled and to the media. All could see where the profits from rent increases and displacement goes.
Tenants noted that while they live in a constant construction zone at the Stoney Creek Towers with no escape — with drilling in the early hours of the morning on the apartment balconies and frequent entries into their apartments to install new fibre optic cables for high-speed internet they never requested — their landlord McGahan has the luxury of “camping out” at his second mansion while his primary residence is under construction.
Behind the massive pillared homes, residents of this exclusive wealthy enclave enjoyed the summer driving their yachts and jet-skis on the Rideau River. Meanwhile in Hamilton, displaced renters were being evicted from tent encampments they’ve been setting up on the fringes of urban trails, the product of an “out of control Hamilton housing market.”
InterRent, McGahan, and other real estate bigwigs like them, have come up against the organized power of working-class people. By persistently ignoring the rent strike, they have allowed their brands to be the face of the acute crisis of housing affordability across the country. Tenants will continue to break the bubble of overconfidence that they and their investors have enjoyed. They need to come to the table and negotiate. They need to meet the demands of the Stoney Creek Towers tenants.